Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Recovery reading

I'm particularly happy to welcome spring this year, since around here this winter was one of prolonged illness. Nothing that serious for people, save bouts of the flu and a regular old cold shortly thereafter, but for Hodge the beloved cat, an emergency surgery and many days of anxious recovery had our household extremely unsettled.

Thus, as I sat with one hand hovering over a box of tissues and the other hand holding kitty-cat antibiotics, I sought reassurance and hope. Not to mention distraction. In other words, books for an ideal convalescence. Hodge and I spent many February afternoons sitting together in patches of sun, me reading, him napping, both of us recovering. Of course, since nothing is so reassuring as rereading (o the familiar and the loved), I must begin this short list with one of my favorite books for all time, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My reading copy is illustrated by Nora S. Unwin (Lippincott 1949) and I treasure it simply because this is the edition I knew and loved as a child, and read so often and so thoroughly that the book literally fell apart at the seams. The spine is missing, the first twelve pages are missing, the covers are frayed and the whole book resembles a peeled piece of fruit. I got every last drop of life out of it, I think. I still own that copy, but in recent years I bought a new (old) copy, the one pictured here, intact and much more readable. The cover, with its trailing ivy and keyhole, still thrills me. And the story itself? It travels known ground: death, illness, loss, loneliness - all those long winters of the heart - and then, with the coming of spring, arising from the sickbed, choosing life, turning to nature as a source of healing and resurrection.

I also read Of Flowers and a Village: An Entertainment for Flower Lovers by Wilfrid Blunt (a lovely facsimile reprint, pictured here, of this 1963 book is currently available from Timber Press). The structure of this novel is charming: a recently-retired widowed gentleman buys a house in the country with enough room to truly garden to his heart's content, and writes lovely long letters to his bed-ridden god-daughter, to keep her amused during her convalescence. The letters tell us all the gossipy details of village life, alongside lectures about flowers and flower gardening. Blunt (for the narrator is he, thinly disguised) says he is not a plant snob, not a "haughtyculturalist" (p.109) at all, and he agrees wholeheartedly with one Professor Dawson, who apparently said, "I hate Theology and Botany, but I love religion and flowers." (p.35).

I read this straight though and, as the fictional god-daughter gradually recovered her health, felt as though I was coming back to life myself. An absolute delight.

I began to suspect that the perfect recovery companions may well be British gardening books. I tested my theory and followed up these two with Gertrude Jekyll's classic Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden (having bought a nice reprint from the Antique Collectors' Club at a local library sale for $1.00). How restful to simply read about all this work and maintenance, rather than having to get out in the garden and actually do it! I mean, her garden: "The big flower border is about two hundred feet long and fourteen feet wide." (p. 124). (!!) I loved her philosophy of gardening as a fine art: "...to be always watching, noting and doing, and putting oneself meanwhile into closest acquaintance and sympathy with the growing things." (p.18) Reading this had me yearning to get to work in the garden, yet securely happy in the knowledge that I could, instead, stay inside reading in our patch of sun, since it was still winter after all.

One more book I find I must mention. I wonder if other readers of The Secret Garden ask themselves, as I always do, What happened next? Colin walks again and loves life, Mary grows into a normal happy child, the heartsick father decides to live again. And then...? Well, in reading the recent memoir of Nicholas Haslam, I have discovered one possible answer. If The Secret Garden had been published for the first time in the 1940s, as my reprint is, Haslam is Colin's contemporary, and here we find another Colin, thriving. For Haslam spent three years as a bedridden invalid, from ages 7 to 10 a victim of polio, then learned to walk again with the help of his nurse, and went on to lead a ridiculously dazzling life. His book, Redeeming Features: A Memoir (Knopf 2009), describes his picaresque adventures around the world and reads like a who's who of international celebrity. At first I suspected the book might be merely one long name-drop, but less than halfway into it the cumulative effect becomes overpowering as you realize that this is his life, these are his friends, and holy mackerel, he met or knew (and still knows) everyone who did everything everywhere. Movie stars, rock stars, artists, models, royalty, presented by a posh narrator who loves the luxe life yet retains more than merely a grain of the humble and sweet. This is escapism at its best, for the housebound. Why was this book not a thousand pages long, instead of merely three hundred? Well, we can catch up with Nicholas Haslam at his blog, or track down the documentary about his life, Hi Society, if we so desire. And we do, oh we do.

(By the way, a nice bit of reading serendipity: Wilfrid Blunt was Haslam's art teacher at Eton. I said he'd known everyone, and I meant it.)

Back on the home front, I'm happy to report that Hodge has fully recovered. I have fully recovered too, as winter becomes a memory. The books go back on the shelf and the garden beckons. The first daffodil opened today.

What books helped bring you back to life this winter, I wonder?

I too reach for soothing books during stressful times. Of Flowers and a Village sounds so nice, and I've requested it from the library. Thanks for advising--and I'm so glad that Hodge is doing better!
Thanks, ccr! Hope you enjoy the Blunt book. It reads as if one of the male characters in a Barbara Pym or Miss Read novel decided to write his own version of (non)events.
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